Using questions skilfully

Effective questioning begins with active listening - listening for the feelings behind the words. It is listening that puts the speaker's feelings, concerns and thoughts first.

Few things are harder than active listening. Not only must you first process information, then remember it, interpret it, evaluate it and respond to it; you must also not ask anything back for yourself - no changes to 'have your own say' or 'get your two cents in'.

So why bother with such a demanding listening skill? Because you can't truly be an effective manager, supervisor or co-worker unless you do! Once you master the skills of active listening, you'll 'get' as much as you 'give' in terms of increased productivity, morale, motivation, sense of teamwork, etc.

Questions can sometimes be detrimental to the active listening process. However, if asked correctly, they can be extremely helpful. It all depends on the kind of questions you ask and the way you ask them.

Active listeners consciously avoid using questions that would threaten or challenge the speaker. ("What do you mean by that?" or "Why did you say that?").

Instead, they use questions to clarify, elaborate and understand. ("How did you come to feel that way?" and "What do you think is the biggest stumbling block right now?").

To get a better handle on the questioning, let's first take a look at some questioning 'do's'.

Do use open questions

'Open questions' are questions that call for more than a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer or similar short reply. Open questions make it possible for a person to respond with what's on his or her mind.

Open questions often begin with words such as "how", "what, and "where".

For example:

  • "How did that make you feel?"
  • "What happened next?"
  • "Where do you see this leading?"

Do use expanding questions

This type of question may encourage the speaker to elaborate or clarify something she/he has said before. These questions are especially effective when you sense that the speaker is hesitating to say something she/he may wish to communicate, but is afraid to say for some reason. Examples of 'expanding' questions are:

  • "Can you tell me more about that?"
  • "I'm still a little hazy on that last point. Could you be a little more specific?"